In an effort to stay fit, lose weight, dodge diseases and limit medical costs, Americans spend billions of dollars on health-and-wellness products each year. Sadly, many of the claims companies make to boost sales turn out to be completely false or not substantiated by research. The Federal Trade Commission works against deceptive marketing, shining a light on false claims and charging those companies that make them. For ensured safety and effectiveness, seek guidance from your doctor before using wellness products, particularly if they’re relatively new or make grandiose or miraculous claims. Read on, to see 17 diet, health and fitness products with health claims that were found to be totally bogus.
1. HCG Diet Dangers
The HCG Diet involves taking hormones women produce during pregnancy while severely restricting their caloric intake. Company claims that the hormones stimulate weight loss are unsubstantiated, and in 2013 the Federal Trade Commission sent seven warning letters to different marketers of the product. The FTC has since brought charges against HCG Platinum and HCG Diet Direct, calling HCG “an unproven human hormone that has been touted by hucksters for more than half a century as a weight-loss treatment.” According to the Food and Drug Administration, the diet is associated with an increased risk of gallstones and potentially life-threatening conditions, including heart arrhythmias and electrolyte imbalances.
2. Sensa Salts: Senseless?
If you’ve been adding Sensa, a powder containing maltodextrin, tricalcium phosphate and silica, to your food in hopes of slimming down sans dieting or exercising as advertisements promised, you could be in for a disappointment. These supposedly clinically-proven claims were found to be unsubstantiated by the Federal Trade Commission in January 2014. “You should be skeptical of any supplement that calls itself revolutionary or makes claims such as ‘lose weight without changing your diet,’” said Dr. Charlie Seltzer, a physician and obesity specialist. “No such thing exists. Working with a knowledgeable health professional,” he adds, “such as a physician or dietitian well-versed in weight-loss science, is a better bet for safe, effective results.”
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3. Acai for Weight Loss
Acai, a purple Brazilian berry with a natural chocolaty flavor, is rich in antioxidants, fiber and healthy fats -- a rare attribute for fruit. Acai-containing supplements have been touted as weight-loss aids without any supportive evidence, said the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC stopped Beony International and nine other companies from making these unsubstantiated claims -- including that the acai supplement could facilitate 25 pounds of weight loss per month -- on fake news websites they created. So while it may not be proven to whittle your waist, the berry is still good for you. “There are no apparent risks with the acai itself,” said Dr. Charlie Seltzer, a physician and obesity specialist in Philadelphia. To reap its nutritional benefits, consume acai berries, pulp or pure juice blends containing the pulp routinely. The effects of acai supplements remain largely unknown.
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African Bushmen historically relied on hoodia, a cactus-like plant, to curb thirst and hunger during lengthy hunting trips. In recent years, the plant has appeared in weight-loss supplements. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, there is no reliable scientific evidence supporting hoodia as a weight-loss supplement and appetite suppressant. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission reported Nutraceuticals International and Stella Labs for making false claims about hoodia as an obesity treatment. Even if the claims were true, the supplements wouldn’t have worked: They were found to not actually contain any actual hoodia. “Due to the lack of regulation, there is a potential risk of toxins or impurities in any supplement,” said Philadelphia-based physician Dr. Charlie Seltzer regarding the hoodia claims.
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5. Dannon’s Activia Exaggerations
Some health claims rely on exaggerated facts, making them wrongful and potentially misleading. After the Federal Trade Commission charged Dannon with deceptive advertising in 2010, the company agreed to stop stating that consuming Activia yogurt daily relieves digestive irregularity and that the yogurt drink DanActive staves off colds and flu. Both products contain beneficial bacteria known as probiotics, but the FTC deemed the claim that these health benefits were “clinically proven” to be false. While studies are ongoing, current research suggests that probiotics may help improve digestive function, help with side effects of antibiotics and support immune function.
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6. Reebok Toning Shoes
If only wearing a particular brand of workout apparel could strengthen and sculpt your legs and derriere! Reebok falsely claimed that its toning shoes could do just that, issuing $25 million in refunds to purchasers in 2011, according to the Federal Trade Commission. A TV ad stated that the shoes were proven to work your calf and hamstring muscles up to 11 percent harder and your butt up to 28 percent harder merely by walking, according to ABC News, yet lab tests didn’t support these claims. When buying workout gear, you should carefully evaluate advertising claims. Grandiose statements that promise rapid, effortless or miraculous results should be viewed with no small amount of skepticism.
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7. Skechers’ Misstep
Reebok isn’t the only shoemaker to take a huge misstep when it comes to claims around “shaping up” shoes. In 2012, Skechers USA, Inc. agreed to pay a $40 million settlement as a result of making unsubstantiated and misleading claims regarding their Shape-ups shoes. Print and television ads, which included celebrity endorsements from Kim Kardashian and Brooke Burke claimed that their Shape-ups shoes would help consumers lose weight and strengthen and tone their legs, buttocks and abs – that they could “get in shape without stepping foot in a gym.” The FTC also reported that Skechers participated in deceptive marketing with their Resistance Runner, Toners and Tone-ups shoes and consumers would be available eligible for refunds.
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8. Vibram FiveFingers Fail
One of latest health claim hoaxes to come to light is a class-action lawsuit brought against Vibram USA, Inc. for the deceiving claims they made about their FiveFingers shoe product – specifically that they’d decrease foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles. While research was conducted on the minimalist shoes, which looked at reducing injuries, improving posture and strengthening muscles, the company was charged with misrepresenting the findings of this research. As a result, Vibram agreed to pay $3.75 million in refunds to consumers and they must also stop making these claims until there is scientific evidence to support them.
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9. Colotox Cleansers
More than 316,700 people received refund checks totaling nearly $6 million after buying products from Central Coast Nutraceuticals in 2010. The products included Colotox, a supposed colon-cleansing aid intended for cancer prevention. The Federal Trade Commission determined these claims misleading and unsubstantiated. Pills aren’t known to “cleanse” your body, but feeding your body well helps it detoxify itself while promoting overall wellness, says Harvard Women’s Health Watch. “Focusing your attention on making better lifestyle choices and exercising regularly will lower your risk of disease far more than any supplement ever could,” said Dr. Charlie Seltzer, a Philadelphia-based physician.
10. Natural Bedbug Treatment
Bedbugs are undoubtedly bothersome, and natural cures may seem more appealing than chemical alternatives. There is no proof, however, that the natural ingredients cedar, cinnamon, clove oil, lemongrass or peppermint help eradicate them, says the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC charged RMB Group for falsely claiming that its product Rest Easy effectively prevents and resolves bedbug infestations and works better than pesticide treatments. If you are worried about bedbugs, you can prevent infestations by eliminating household clutter, repairing cracks in furniture and cupboards and checking under hotel mattresses to make sure the coast is clear before use.
11. Fake Shakes
Many dieters rely on meal-replacement shakes to keep their calories in check, but not all varieties are created equal, nor are their product claims necessarily legit. Jason Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of Medifast Inc., was charged with a $3.7 million civil penalty to settle false-claim charges in 2012. The claims touted significant user success rates and promised results of two to five pounds of weight loss per week -- both of which were unsubstantiated. Safe, effective weight loss is steady, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, involving a maximum of two pounds lost per week, so even if the Medifast claims were true, such rapid loss could pose risks.
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12. Alertness-Boosting Mini-Wheats
Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats provide valuable amounts of fiber, vitamins and minerals. But contrary to packaging claims touted in 2009, according to the Federal Trade Commission, they aren’t clinically proven to boost kids’ attentiveness by nearly 20 percent. Healthy breakfast habits in general can enhance children’s brain function and academic performance, according to the Washington State Department of Health, but falsely stating clinical data is illegal. While clinical studies regarding Frosted Mini-Wheats were conducted, relatively few children could be proved to be nearly 20 percent more attentive after eating them.
13. Slimming Skin Cream
Skin creams provide important benefits, such as supple, hydrated skin. Contrary to Nivea’s claims about its My Silhouette! cream, however, they aren’t known to significantly shrink your body size. Nivea also allegedly purchased sponsored search results that led consumers searching for “thin waist” or “stomach fat” to its product. In response to Federal Trade Commission charges in 2011, the company agreed to a settlement of $900,000. “The real skinny on weight loss is that no cream is going to help you fit into your jeans,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz stated in a release about the claims. “The tried-and-true formula for weight loss is diet and exercise.”
14. Airborne Cold Cures
Colds aren’t fun, and taking Airborne, which promised to prevent and stop them, may seem like a smart purchase for many consumers. In 2006, the makers of the supplement containing herbal extracts, antioxidants, synthetic vitamins and other ingredients agreed to pay $30 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges for making false and unverified claims about cold prevention, germ fighting and effectiveness. While many consumers have sworn by Airborne, simply washing your hands is more effective for cold and flu prevention.
15. Concussion Guards
Concussions, or traumatic brain injuries caused by blows to the head, can happen during any sport or recreational activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wearing a mouth guard that prevents them would be of benefit if you lead an active lifestyle, but no evidence supports their effectiveness. In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission charged Brain-Pad, Inc. with deceptive advertising for falsely promising that its mouth guards prevent concussions and have been clinically proven to do so. The packages touted false claims that the guard created “new brain-safety space” and reduced risks of concussions from lower-jaw impacts. Educating athletes on safe play and the risks of concussions, reports the CDC, are valuable preventative measures.
16. Healing Foot Pads
If you hope to rid your body of toxins, disease and excess pounds, your money would be better invested in healthy foods and conventional treatments than magic foot pads. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission filed complaints against Kinoki Foot Pad marketers for unsubstantiated claims that, when worn at night, the pads remove heavy metals, parasites, cellulite and other toxins while treating hypertension, arthritis, diabetes and depression. They also falsely stated scientific proof of these benefits. People who felt better using the pads were likely lucky or experiencing placebo effects. “Some people feel better just by chance, and some people feel better because of the expectation,” Dr. George Friedman-Jimenez, an environmental medicine expert with New York University, told ABC News. “The placebo effect contributes to the improvement in the symptoms.”
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17. Not-So-Superhero Vitamins
Adults aren’t the only ones susceptible to false health claims. “Fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices about sums up my view of the outrageous peddling of supplements to young children under the guise of teaching healthy habits,” said Janet Brill, a Philadelphia-based dietitian. In 2010, more than $2.1 million in refunds were sent to purchasers of Disney and Marvel superhero-themed children’s multivitamins, which were found not to contain notable amounts of essential fats nor to promote healthy eye and brain development as the packages promised. These benefits derive from 100 daily milligrams of DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid), according to the FTC, yet a daily serving of the multivitamins contained only a thousandth of that amount.
What Do YOU Think?
Have you tried any wellness products only to find out that the claims were false? Are there any that we missed on our list? Let us know by leaving a comment below. We love hearing from you.
- Federal Trade Commission: Health and Fitness Claims
- Oprah.com: Dr. Perricone's No. 1 Superfood: Acai
- National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Hoodia
- Federal Trade Commission: Dannon Agrees to Drop Exaggerated Health Claims for Activia Yogurt and DanActive Dairy Drink
- Federal Trade Commission: Refunds Stemming From Reebok's Settlement With FTC Mailed to Consumers Who Bought EasyTone and RunTone Shoes and EasyTone Apparel
- ABC News: Reebok to Refund $25 Million for False Advertising
- Federal Trade Commission: FTC Sends Refund Checks Totaling nearly $6 Million to Consumers Who Bought Dietary Supplements
- Federal Trade Commission: FTC Takes Action Against Companies Marketing Allegedly Unproven Natural Bed Bug and Head Lice Treatments
- Federal Trade Commission: Subsidiary of Diet Plan Marketer Medifast Inc. to Pay $3.7 Million to Settle FTC Charges
August McLaughlin is a health and sexuality writer, podcast host and author of “Girl Boner: The Good Girl’s Guide to Sexual Empowerment” (Amberjack Publishing, 2018). Her articles appear in DAME Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, the Huffington Post and more, and she loves connecting with readers through her blog and social media. augustmclaughlin.com